The Many Issues Involved in Playing Pro Sports without Fans
Sports Without Fans: The Business Realities of Empty Stadium Games
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, sports leagues, TV networks, advertisers and yes, politicians are calling for sports to resume without spectators. What lies ahead may be a very dangerous play — in many ways!
“It’s a television show!”
— Tony Kornheiser,
Games in front of empty seats. It is something we have basically only seen abroad — up until now. Sure, every year there seems to be one or two. European soccer games that played in an empty stadium, typically coming as a punishment from their league and/or governing body for their fans doing “bad things,” like shooting flares or chanting racist slurs (or maybe both…) at players on the opposing team.
Games in empty stadiums however are not just a European phenomenon, as it has even happened in the U.S. Quite famously — or infamously, the Baltimore Orioles opted to play a home game in an empty Camden Yards in April 2015 in the face of a wave of violence and civil unrest in the city following the death of Freddie Gray — the first and only Major League Baseball game — or any official game in the history of U.S. professional sports — to be played without spectators. That is, until now…
Today, in the wake of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, sports leagues around the world are struggling to cope with an unprecedented public health threat. Most all sports have effectively stopped. And presently, the question facing every league is the same: How can we restart, and when we do, how will we have to operate differently to be safe?
— President Donald Trump, April 16, 2020
And lest we think sports is just for fun, President Trump has placed getting sports back to normal — well, kind of normal — at the top of his priorities for restarting the American economy. He sees empty stadium contests as a solution, and has been holding conference calls with all the major sports commissioners on how to get sports back in play. And yes, the President is tired of watching sports reruns, too!
No Good Alternatives
At present, it appears that there really are no good alternatives for sports decision makers — only a range of what are really bad to worse options. We’ve seen not just American pro sports leagues, but indeed leagues and sporting events all around the world, attempting to cope with the unprecedented challenge posed by the coronavirus outbreak. Leagues — such as the China Basketball Association — have tried to restart their seasons, only to see the virulence of the virus change their plans. There have been some pretty wild proposals thus far, such as the NBA’s proposed plan to play games on cruise ships, in Las Vegas, or even at DisneyWorld! The NHL has continued to try and salvage a part of their season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, even floating the idea of playing in remote locations like Grand Forks, North Dakota! And Major League Baseball is proposing to play all of its games in Spring Training stadiums in Florida and Arizona, with its players and all supporting personnel sequestered in a “bubble.” Big, big sporting events have been shuffled on the sports calendar:
- The Indianapolis 500 has been rescheduled for late August,
- The Kentucky Derby will now be run in September, and
- The Masters is now on for November.
And as the Chinese basketball case study shows, all of this planning is really predicated on the coronavirus and the success/failure we have in being able to test for it, to develop treatments for it, and ultimately, to develop a vaccine for it. So as the pandemic’s biggest unintentional superstar — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — on the biggest wild card in all of this is the coronavirus itself. And yes, lest we forget…
You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline…
— Dr. Anthony Fauci
And yes, there was a glimmer of hope for the tens of millions of sports fans a few days ago that some sports will be able to resume in some way when Dr. Fauci weighed in on the matter. In response to a question on just what it would take for sports to get started again, Dr. Fauci observed that sports might be able to resume this summer, but with some mighty big “ifs.” Specifically, Fauci stated that his recommendations for the resumption of sports would be predicated on the conditions that:
“Nobody comes to the stadium. Put (the players) in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled. … Have them tested every single week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”
Of course, since everything in American life — from sports to politics and now even epidemiology — is seemingly debatable these days, Dr. Fauci’s recommendations drew heated debate across the world of sports. And yes, Stephen A. Smith had to weigh-in on First Take:
Empty Stadium Games
At present, it does look like if — and when — team sports come back in the U.S., it is highly likely than it will be in empty stadiums. How important are fans in the stands in the sports equation? Bob Bradley, manager of the MLS’ LAFC team, who experienced coaching a fanless soccer match when he coached the Egyptian national team, recently said that “a game without fans has no soul.” And as one noted sports commentator, Martin Rogers, put it oh so well when sports as we had known it before the coronavirus ended live sports in the U.S. in mid-March:
“When fans are referred to as the lifeblood of the game, it is not a cliché. The noise, the buzz, the anticipation, the communal emotions, it isn’t just what makes sports better. It’s what makes it a spectacle.”
And yes, when he was initially questioned in March (before the NBA suspended play league-wide) by a reporter on the possibility of having to play NBA games without fans, LeBron James responded without hesitation: “If I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there, I ain’t playing.”
The reality of things today is simple: The leagues need play in order to gain some revenue, primarily from their TV contract. In time however, we may come to look upon the coronavirus pandemic as an inflection point in the history of American sports. As I wrote about last year in what has been one of my most widely read and cited articles to date (“The Now Constant Crisis of Empty Seats in Sports”), sports across the board have been grappling with how to reverse the long-term trend that has made the at-home experience far superior to the in-stadium one. Many forces, from the bigger and bigger TV’s we own to the higher and higher cost — and hassle — of attending games in person factor into this trend. But the bottom-line is this: More and more of us are opting to cheer our favorite team from the convenience of our own couch — or the local Buffalo Wild Wings — over cheering on our team in their stadium.
Now, sports leagues around the world are suddenly being forced to scramble for ideas on how to best cope with the present circumstances. And for the most part, their plans seem to be centering on fanless games. This is by no means a new idea. In fact, legendary Dallas Cowboys General Manager Texas (E.) Tex Schramm (yes, that was his real name!) once envisioned — back in the 1980s — that pro football would someday be played on a TV studio sound stage — with no live audience.
College sports find themselves in a real predicament — maybe even an existential one if the 2020 college football season is delayed or scrapped entirely because of the coronavirus. That is because as sports business analyst Darren Rovell laid out, colleges are far more dependent on live gate revenue than television revenue. As such, their situation is basically the inverse of most professional sports leagues, other than leagues with small television contracts (i.e. the MLS and to a lesser extent the NHL) or professional individual sports (i.e. golf and tennis).
Already, we have seen universities begin to cut athletic budgets, furlough and/or terminate employees, enact pay cuts, and even eliminate some non-revenue sports. The college sports situation is indeed dire, but not only due to their revenue structure. The bigger issue out there is the rather pervasive sentiment that if the university environment, congregating students in dorms, classrooms, cafeterias, public spaces, etc., will not be safe in general for students in the near-term, it cannot be considered safe for college athletes (just witness the backlash that hit Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy when he suggested his players return to campus to prepare for the season as normal because they were young and could “fight off the virus”). And already, as some leading universities are looking toward holding their Fall 2020 semesters online, the prospects for a “normal” college football season with fans — even on a delayed basis — would seem to be getting dimmer by the day. Thus, the issues facing college sports — and the possible consequences of a longer term suspension of live sports due to COVID-19 — are far different and even more dire than those facing professional leagues — and beyond the scope of the present research.
The Issues with Fanless Games
As pro sports leagues grapple with how to successfully transition — at least for this season, but perhaps for even longer — to playing games without fans, there are a number of factors that they will need to consider. To this analyst, from a sports marketing perspective, these include:
Issue 1 — TV Viewership
This is the $64 thousand-million-hundreds of millions of dollars question in all of this! The theory that all sports leagues are operating under is that a sports-starved, quarantined, “watched everything on Netflix” public will watch any live sports in droves. However, as people’s attention is focused on the coronavirus (witness the record ratings for the news networks since the pandemic began) and their time is divided between family, education and work tasks in new ways, it is not at all automatic that sports viewing would be a priority. And one thing to remember in all of this is the fact that as social norms and behaviors/attitudes/habits change over time due to the pandemic, the longer we go without sports, the less likely it will be that Americans will immediately — or even over the long-term — fall back into their pre-pandemic sports viewing patterns.
Thus, this analyst believes that particularly after 1, 2, 3…6 months without live sports content, the ratings may not reach the “out of the park” levels that sports and television executives are anticipating. To the contrary, viewership may be weaker — perhaps far weaker — than pre-pandemic levels. And that is before taking into account issue #2…
Issue 2 — The Quality/Feel Factor
A very real X factor in all of this is not only how games played in empty stadiums and arenas will look and feel on our television screens, but how the quality of the play itself will be — or at least how it will be regarded by sports fans. Over and over again, players have echoed the LeBron James position of just how integral fans are to the game itself — to the intensity, to the rhythm, to the pulse and flow of how the game is played. As Lucas Giolito, a Chicago White Sox player who played in the fanless game in Baltimore in 2005 commented recently, playing a game with no fans is “definitely not the most enjoyable experience for a player.” He went on to elaborate on that, saying:
“For me, personally, I really love to feed off the crowd’s energy, whether that’s at home and everyone’s rooting for me or if we’re on the road and I want to shut all the other fans up. I like that part of the game. I think it’s a big part of the game. The more fans that are packed into a stadium, the more exciting a game can be, the more it adds to it.”
And so beyond the look of the game on screen (and yes, the argument has already been made that with fewer and fewer fans in the seats in the backdrop of the action makes people ask “why should I care to watch this?”, what will the reaction be to games with no fans in the stands at all!), the game itself may appear to viewers more like a practice. And if the quality and intensity of play dips due to the lack of fan presence, that will be even a further detriment to TV viewership and overall fan interest.
How likely is it that the fanless games will look, feel, sound like they are 60–70–80% of what a “normal” football, basketball, baseball game would be — at least in the minds of fans, even if the games seem to be being played at 100% by the participants? This analyst would argue that this is perhaps the most likely scenario, and it is one that should be closely monitored by both league and television executives as actual live games in empty stadiums get underway. If the public does not perceive the on-field — and on-screen — product to be as good without fans and it has been historically, sports leagues face a very real predicament moving forward. In fact, live games could prove detrimental to their brand and to their teams’ following and marketing efforts. Thus, quality control will be a huge issue in the initial months of fanless competition.
Issue 3 — Advertising/Marketing Concerns
This final area of concern deals with some very real marketing concerns that sports leagues and their teams should have as live competition resumes. This analyst believes these include:
Sponsors — Will league’s existing sponsors “stick with” their sports advertising/marketing investments? WIll they — can they — use their traditional messaging for fanless games, or will they have to adapt their advertising to fit the current circumstances. As we have seen, many companies over the past month or so have very adeptly changed their advertising messages to match the times in the wake of the pandemic. One could expect this to continue into the transition back to live sporting events, and yes, there are ample opportunities for leagues and their sponsors to develop very creative messaging to better reflect the mood of the country -and yes, sell to us as consumers.
Sports Marketing — An especially tricky area to negotiate and to monitor will be that of corporate sponsorships for teams and stadiums. For instance, what is the diminished value of a brand’s contract for in-stadium signage and/or team sponsorship during the period of fanless play. What if playing in front of empty stadiums and arenas is not just for this season, but has to be extended for 1, 2, 3, or even more seasons if the coronavirus threat persists without the development of effective treatment regimens and/or a vaccine? One could well imagine this could be an area ripe for not just heated negotiations between leagues, teams and their sponsors, but for litigation as well.
Public Relations — As a sports marketing analyst, this is an area of special concern, and it is the one that is most outside of the control of the leagues and management. And this centers around the coronavirus itself — and its unpredictability.
On one hand, since the leagues and their teams exist in the wider environment, they run the risk of the outbreak hitting that much talked about “second wave” in the public at large. As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, pandemics always have such a second wave! And so yes, if the pandemic worsens nationally and people are suffering and dying, the whole notion of sports leagues and teams playing at all could be viewed as a bit unseemly. And even if a general outbreak does not happen, but say a regional one — in Florida for instance, could/should/would teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, the Miami Heat, the Jacksonville Jaguars, etc. play if a COVID-19 hotspot develops in their area, even if the team itself and all involved in the “bubble” of its operations continue to test negative? Needless to say, the “look” of that may not be good.
The other PR question is the second part of the “what if” question — or almost what seems to be more of a “when it happens” matter. For all the plans and preparations that will go into a league playing under the present virus threat and for all precautions that will be taken by leagues and teams, the odds are that somehow, 1, 2, 3… players will test positive for the coronavirus at some point during a league’s season. How can — how should — how will — the league react? And the corollary to that of course is the PR issue — how will the general public react to news that a player, a coach, a support person, etc. has tested positive for the virus. One could well anticipate that the negative PR that will stem from this — along with the public discussion of the worth of the risk of gathering people together to play a game in the present circumstances — might well be intense. When considering the possible downside risks of case(s) occurring, some leagues, teams, and yes, individual players and/or coaches (particularly those who themselves have other health factors that might make them more susceptible to a serious COVID-19 case — or in their family) might opt to not play at all under the threat of the coronavirus with our present lack of testing, treatment, and vaccine.
As a recent interview with PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan shows, even for an individual sport like his, the logistical, medical and practical concerns on how to stage fanless events will be nothing short of monumental. Those concerns only multiply — perhaps exponentially (a term from high school algebra that many have had to relearn — or learn — of late!) when considering staging team sporting events.
All of this — the decisions being made by leagues, teams, players and their media partners, advertisers and sponsors — is evolving in real time. There are no easy answers. There are no right answers, And yes, there are very few certainties at the moment. Yet, the decisions being made today regarding playing sports in a fanless environment involve many millions of dollars and may well set the course for the business of sports for many years to come. The principal advice that this analyst can give is to be just a bit cautious on all of this. The momentum toward most pro sports playing in empty venues seems to be building. However, as we have seen countless times over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the virus has surprised us. Stay tuned!
David C. Wyld (email@example.com) is a Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University outside New Orleans. He is a noted business consultant and speaker/writer on contemporary management issues.